Sunday, August 21, 2011

Turn and Turn Again

or Remembrance of Things Past

A whiff of licorice.  As I brushed past the hummingbird mint, its fragrance filled the air, and I had a sudden  flash of memory from childhood.

We were on a drive through the Colorado Rockies, possibly to enjoy a "three-picnic day," and had stopped at a mom-and-pop gas station on the edge of a tumble-down town.  It was made of logs, and the inside was cool and dark and musty.  Dirty windows glowed golden with sunlight but didn't let much of it through; tiny cobwebs shone in their corners.  At the counter a mountain man with a bush of a beard presided over the cash register.  Lined up in front of him was a row of open glass canisters, filled with long, unwrapped sticks of hard candy in costume-jewelry colors.

Mom gave an exclamation of delight—"Penny candy!"  It actually cost more than that, maybe 5¢, and we children were allowed to choose two sticks each.  They had wonderful, old-fashioned names:  sarsaparilla, horehound.  I chose horehound and licorice, but when we got back to the old Plymouth and tasted our treats, they were disappointing—flavorless, a little dusty.  At the ripe old age of six or so, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the olden days, when penny candy was still good enough to exclaim over in delight.

The odd bite of homesickness for something I had never known made that experience lodge in memory.  Nostalgia for the past got mixed up with that present moment to make a new story, to become a small part of the lore of my life.  Some day I shall inflict it on my niece and nephews, and maybe they'll become nostalgic for family picnics and log-built, mom-and-pop gas stations, for the days when penny candy only cost a nickel.

Agastache rupestris—licorice mint or hummingbird mint—is good at inspiring nostalgia.  The soft, sage-green of its foliage and the salmon-colored flowers have something pleasantly faded about them, like a favorite shirt that has been worn and laundered to softness, or a Polaroid photograph of a long-ago family outing.  The fragrance, too, like licorice (some say root beer) with a hint of rain, is an evocative one; it's overpowering when you're cutting back a whole plant in late winter, but refreshing in small doses.  It always reminds me of the early days in the garden, when I had several agastache growing:  the cool spring day when I planted them and ran my hand through their leaves in greeting; Luther T. Dog coming in from his evening rounds, wearing the scent of licorice on his coat; crisp winter mornings when I crumbled the equally crisp dried leaves to release the fragrance of summer.

In the relatively kind conditions of morning sun and dappled shade, however, the agastache grew twice as tall and wide as they should have—taller than the sand cherries, almost as tall as me.  It became impossible to maneuver around without breaking their stems.  Luther would go outside, look at the impassable jungle, and just give up, and despair is not something I like to see in a dog.  (Or, indeed, anyone.)  The agastache had become a problem, but the decision to dig them out was still a hard one.

I've missed them.  It's probably a bit too soon to call the feeling fully-fledged nostalgia, but not having them around has made the garden feel incomplete.  This summer I'm trying agastache again in containers:  urns this time, to suit their long tap roots.   They generally mark the entrance to the garden proper, but lately I've moved them back closer to the Adirondack chair where they can get more direct sunlight.

The hummingbirds love them.  They have come to tolerate the autumn sage, and they'll toy with the gaura and sample everything else, but the agastache is always their first, most enthusiastic choice.  As they feed, they are so close to me in the chair that I could reach out—not even stretching—and touch them.  Those moments have been some of the most magical of the whole summer.

Nostalgia is such a funny thing.  It's backward-looking yet also somehow creative.  Just as you can never really go home again, you can't really re-create something you've lost; you can never recapture it exactly.  But you can incorporate something of the old into present circumstances and create something new from the mix—something that starts off a fresh round of stories, that creates its own set of memories.

They will become their own source of nostalgia in turn.


  1. I love when Aster comes in from the backyard wafting in the scent of agastache. The rupestris is my favorite in terms of smell and seems the hardiest.

  2. Of all the senses, smell stirs the most vivid memories for me.
    Beautiful post.

  3. Love that shadow shot! I agree...smell evokes the deepest of memories for me as well. The photo of your garden is so representative of the beautiful southwest.

  4. When I brush past the garlic buchu, I remember school holidays when we went to Riversdale where my oldest sister lived. That wave of fragrance that reached us as we drove over the last ridge before the town.

  5. What a beautiful plant. I love when the garden evokes memories. The memories are part of why I love to garden. The hummingbird shot is gorgeous.

  6. Stacy first the photos are incredible. Second how I wish my Agastache would grow that big and lastly what a beautiful made me nostalgic for penny candy. One scent I remember from childhood is that of marigolds. It takes me back to my childhood and my mom planting annuals in the garden...thx for the memories!!

  7. I like being able to see more of your garden! Lately I've been dreaming of a walled-in garden. The photos of the agastache with the wall in the background are gorgeous. And the hummingbird photo looks like a piece of art ... Our newish non-gardening neighbors recently ripped out beds of perennials along the street, including agastache, to replace them with mulch and a couple of junipers. Sigh.

  8. What a wonderful post! That last photo is fantastic. I planted agastache for the first time last fall, and i loved it. I planted several more this year, but they have suffered this summer, from the heat or a virus, I'm not sure. The leaves develop brown spots, and then the whole plant eventually dries up and dies. They are in full sun; maybe a partially shaded area would be better in my garden. But it's worth trying again.

  9. Your photos are very pretty all in shades of pinks and corals. Gardens and memories go hand and hand, and smell is a powerful catalyst.

  10. Oh Stacy, how beautiful. The pix and the words. I love your last paragraph. It says so much. Incorporating the old with the now to make new. I really needed to hear that today!


  11. GirlSprout—I'm with you about the rupestris. I like their finer leaves a little better than the cana types, too. (In fact, three cheers for A. rupestris all the way around!)

    Ginny, thank you. Smell really is powerful that way. I understand that therapeutic gardens in Alzheimer's wings often feature lots of fragrant plants because smell can still call up memories when nothing else can.

    Michelle, that shot was actually just dumb luck—serendipity strikes again!

    Diana, fragrance and traveling and families all seem to go hand in hand where some of those potent memories are concerned. Garlic buchu sounds like it has a fairly potent scent to begin with!

    Holley, most of my garden memories are of my Mom's vegetable garden, and I'm sure that's half the reason I enjoy planting veggies now. Gardening is so multi-sensory that it gives memories a lot of dimensions.

  12. Donna, thank you! Marigolds are so distinctive—I didn't care for the scent when I was younger and my mom was planting annuals (a ritual all moms shared “back in the day,” apparently), but now I enjoy it for the memory as well. Thanks again for the lovely comment!

    Oh, Sheila, that's a bummer about your neighbors. I think non-gardeners get intimidated and are afraid that flowering plants will be hard to care for, when sometimes they're (almost) as easy as mulch and junipers. A walled-in garden has all kinds of perks, especially shelter in winter, but it gives the word “micro-climate” a whole new meaning, too.

    Deb, thank you. I tried some agastache in containers last year that were in full sun, and they weren't very happy at all. With your heat and humidity I'd vote for partial shade, too, or morning sun only. (If they're too shaded, I find, the leaves are gorgeous but they don't bloom well.)

    Iheartbees, thank you and welcome! Pinks and corals are used a lot here in the southwest, where they go well with all the earth-tones.

    Elaine, I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. I was thinking a little about all my friends with CFS/FM when I wrote it, and about moving on creatively from loss. Blessings to you as well.

  13. The agastache is beautiful and has been added to my (ever increasing) wish list.
    Lovely evocative post Stacy.